Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has clarified the current position on legislation governing the closed period for hedge cutting.
She has indicated that she will consider limited derogation in certain situations.
The minister was responding to calls from the Ulster Farmers’ Union for consideration to be given to the introduction of exemptions to the hedge cutting closed period.
Minister O’Neill stressed the importance of hedgerows as habitats, as they support a wide variety of plants, birds, mammals and insects and their wildlife value means that they are worth protecting. Allowing hedges to grow and flourish during the spring and summer; helps to protect these invaluable wildlife sanctuaries and also enhances biodiversity.
She said: “The closed period for hedge cutting in the north reflects the best available evidence of bird nesting dates for some of our priority species. The current closed period, which is now consistent across all of Britain and Ireland, helps provide a balance between the needs of farming and the environment.”
The minister reiterated that the closed period for hedge cutting forms part of the Cross-Compliance Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) Requirements.
She said: “The current GAEC requirement states that hedge, tree or scrub cutting (including trimming and laying) is not permitted between 1 March and 31 August.
“However, hedge cutting during this closed period is permitted where health and safety is an issue, such as roadside hedges. These dates help those that farm the land to avoid damaging birds, nests or chicks.
“Any changes to these Cross-Compliance hedge cutting dates should be based on scientific research evidence and the impact of this on biodiversity and agricultural practices. My department will respond to any new evidence as it comes forward.”
Looking at options for limited derogation in certain situations Minister O’Neill said: “I am sympathetic to the fact that some farmers and especially cereal growers, are of the view that the current closed period dates do not fit with their agricultural activities at the end of August.
“Currently a PhD study is examining the relationship between the closed hedge cutting dates and biodiversity and this study is due to conclude in September 2016. The results of this study will help to inform the Department on this matter.
“However in the meantime I will consider the options for limited derogation to these cutting dates in a small number of specific situations. As part of this consideration, officials will seek the views of those groups who commented on the hedge cutting dates in the Cross Compliance consultation.
“This exercise will identify if circumstances exist to allow limited derogation to hedge cutting during August whilst retaining a good balance between the needs of farming and the environment.
“Any derogation is likely to be limited to a very specific set of circumstances, will require prior permission and will be subject to compliance checks.”
The minister concluded: “In the meantime, it remains important that farmers meet the requirements of Cross-Compliance and the current dates help farmers to do this.”